The plum tree in my garden is blossoming, and that can mean only one thing: Spring is here!
Without getting too poetic about it, the potential energy trapped within the tree over Winter is releasing and opening out to the world. So, in keeping with the cycle of the seasons, let’s return our Tai Chi practice to a similar aspect – opening and closing.
All Chinese martial arts contain movements that open and close the body, but I’d go as far as to say that a repeated pattern of opening and closing your body in movement is the fundamental action of Tai Chi Chuan. It’s perhaps the one thing that makes Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) different to other Chinese martial arts.
For instance, a lot of Southern Chinese arts contain movements where the body is tightly closed under tension and then this tension is used to produce a tightly focussed sort of short power. White Crane is a good example – I really like this video of Martin Watts showing the connection between Chinese White Crane and the roots of Japanese Karate, for example.
Then there are also Chinese martial arts that use ‘open’ postures a lot, and produce power from the big turning actions of the waist and shoulders – Choy Li Fut is a good example of this.
Of course, both these arts make use of both opening and closing movements in application, but what makes Taijiquan different is that it seems to have a rule that the body must constantly cycle through a series of opening and closing postures. You can see this when you look at Tai Chi forms – it shouldn’t matter which style you’re looking at, the opening and closing movements should follow each other in a cycle, very much like the Yin Yang symbol. If you imagine the Yin Yang symbol turning in a clockwise direction then the white fish becomes the black fish, which becomes the white fish, and on and on.
Silk Reeling exercises are a great way to focus on understanding open and close movements, as you just keep repeating the same pattern over and over, so your brain doesn’t get occupied thinking about the movement you are doing next (as it would in a Tai Chi form) and you can focus on the opening and closing actions.
So, what are the opening and closing actions? Well, I went over it in a video series a while ago. You can watch it here:
But it takes a while to watch all that series, so long story short, here’s a written explanation: an opening movement generally stretches out the front of the body (the Yin side – the soft parts, like the inside of the arms, and thigh, calves, and belly) and a closing movement generally stretches out the back of the body (the Yang side – the harder parts, like back of the arms, back and outside of the thighs and shins).
You can see these actions everywhere in nature: Cats tend to stretch along the front and back (yin and yang) of the body when stretching. (And it’s the same with the Yoga “Cat stretch” posture). But you see them in humans too – when you do one of those involuntary yawning/stretching movements in the morning, it tends to be opening the chest (yin stretch), occasionally followed up by a Yang side stretch.
It’s been noted that animals running are opening and closing the Yin and Yang sides of their bodies in sequence. So, this opening and closing action is fundamental to human and animal movement and the more we can utilise it, the more we are returning to our own natural systems of movement. Now, I don’t want to get sidetracked into a debate on what exactly “natural” movement is, but simply put, this opening and closing movement done in the human body feels good, it seems to put you in a good mood and you feel like your body and mind are returning to the way they are supposed to work. It requires less effort to perform tasks using it because it’s very efficient and it feels natural. If you watch skilled workmen and women then you’ll notice that they tend to gravitate towards easy body movements that have this natural opening and closing quality. Many of the people in ancient China who practised kung fu systems would have been agricultural village works who were familiar with natural movement patterns through necessity.
4 Directions Breathing exercise
Silk reeling exercises belong to the Chen style of Taijiquan, and while I (a Yang stylist) have no problem borrowing what works from other styles, a lot of Tai Chi practitioners might not want to do something from another style. However, almost all Qi Gong/Tao Yin type breathing exercises follow the same idea of opening along the Yin side of the body and closing along the Yang side that you find in Silk Reeling exercises.
You probably have some sort of exercise already that’s in your system to try this with, but let’s try one simple exercise to get our heads around the idea of open and close.
Stand in a Horse stance,
- Breathe in as you bring your hands up facing you and then move them around a large imaginary ball that’s in front of your chest, so that your hands are facing away from you.
- Push the imaginary ball forward away from you as you breathe out.
- Turn the hands over and bring them back in towards you as you breathe in, going around the outside of the ball.
- Push to the sides as you breathe out.
- Bring the hands back in, circling the ball, getting underneath it as you breathe in.
- Push upwards as you breathe out.
- Bring the hands back in, circling the ball, getting on top of it as you breathe in.
- Push downwards as you breathe out.
- Bring the hands back in, going around the ball as you breathe in.
- Let the palms face down and hands return to your sides as you breathe out.
Adding the opening and closing:
As you bring your arms up and towards you and go around a big ball that’s the opening movement. You can feel the slight stretch opening around the chest area, and you use that slight tension to help push your hands forward. As you do you’ll feel a slight stretch developing along your back. That’s the closing movement. You then use that slight tension to help bring your arms back. This is opening. Then as the arms push to the side, this is closing, and so on.
Here’s a video of me doing it:
Don’t use muscle
You often hear Tai Chi teachers say things like “don’t use muscle”. Normally this drives me mad, as you can’t physically make a movement without using muscles! However, what they’re really talking about is using that slight stretch you can feel to power the movement instead of just moving as you normally would, which results in making it “too physical” for Tai Chi. Finding the right words here is a delicate balance, but what we’re looking for is more of a whole body movement.
It helps to work on this in a stationary exercise, as described, but when you try your Tai Chi form, try and focus on keeping that feeling of opening and closing going throughout the whole form. The opening and closing movements are already there in the form, it’s up to you to reveal them. It’s a way of approaching the form from the inside, rather than the outside. So, if you’ve been struggling to get a movement to feel right in your form, it could be that the method described here will solve the problem for you. For it to work you have to be “sung” (relaxed) and focused on what you’re doing and the feelings inside the body. If your mind wanders off then inevitably so will your form. This is the start of what we call in the Tai Chi Classics “internal and external combine”.
Further reading: Turning Qigongs into functional Qi exercises